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Mithila Art: Reincarnated from the rubbles of an earthquake

Rajesh Kumar

“In the best art there is an inescapable element of strangeness, the sense of a novel wonder, a mystery burning at the heart of life, and it is the strangeness this incandescence which above all the painting of Mithila transmits”. The overwritten statement is the words William G. Archer chose to end his article on Mithila art titled ‘Mithila Painting’ which was published in 1949 in Marg Vol. 3, No. 3. This article grabbed the public attention towards Mithila painting. Archer gave a detailed account of the social and ritual context, conventions, sources of variation, and uses of line and colour in the ancient wall-painting tradition in Mithila region of Bihar.

Kohbar ghar, 1935, photograph by William Archer
Courtesy- Sarmaya

Going back to January 19, 1934, Mithila art was reincarnated from the ruins of a deadly earthquake that ripped through Northern Bihar. William Archer, a civil service official stationed in Madhubani, Bihar discovered several wall paintings that were not only eye catching due to the extensive use of various colours but also astounding in depiction of male and female lines and various gods and goddesses giving their blessing. He recounts the events in his dairy, “I had ridden out one evening to a village close to Madhubani itself and chanced upon a small white temple. The mahant (priest) invited me to see the image. It was a black stone dressed in doll like clothes.” He actually stumbled upon a marriage chamber (kohbar ghar). The central point of the paintings was a kohbar, representation of a lotus pond with flowers, fish, turtles, snakes, parrots, peacocks and lovebirds as symbols of female beauty and fertility. A stylised bamboo grove next to it represented male fertility and the male family line. Paintings of Durga, Krishna, Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi and Ganesh were placed around these to create a safe and auspicious environment for a marriage. In his article Archer quotes, “I must confess that for at least an hour, I forgot the earthquake and its horrors. I was entranced by what I saw in these murals we somehow electrically met. What they took for granted, I considered superb…the art was there and made us one… I saw the beauty in the mud.

Untitled, early 21st century, unidentified artist
Courtesy- Sarmaya

Despite the Mithila murals obvious differences, Archer considered them as comparable to ‘modern European art’ in terms of inventiveness and imaginative conception. Firstly he discovered the wall paintings in Brahmin homes on the cracked walls of the kohbar ghar, the marriage chamber. Later on after his discovery of the paintings in Kayastha homes, he noted that while the imagery was similar, “the style of their murals was quite distinct. It presupposed the same liberties, the same repudiation of truth to natural appearances, and the same determination to project a forceful idea of a subject rather than a factual record. But in contrast to Brahmins, Kayastha women were vehement. They portrayed their main subject with shrill boldness, with savage forcefulness…. If Maithil Brahmin murals resembled Miro or Klee, here was Picasso naked and unashamed.” What he discovered was just a glimpse of a thriving age-old art form, but it left him captivated.

A Kohbar-style Madhubani Painting showing aspects of daily life
Coutesy- Housenama

In 1966-67 during the Bihar famine, the baton was shifted from Archer to Pupul Jayakar. She was the head of the All India Handloom Board. With instruction from

Sita Devi
Courtesy- Saffron Art

Archer she tried to get in touch with Brahmin and Kayastha families in Madhubani with an aim to compile a video record of Mithila art. When the plan crumbled down, she along with the help of Bombay artist Bhaskar Kulkarni trained local women of Jitwarpur and Ranti (villages in Madhubani) to transfer the wall painting to paper for sale. The first paintings garnered accolades in 1967 during an exhibition at New Delhi. From there on two Kayastha painters, Ganga Devi and Mahasundari Devi, and two Brahmin painters, Sita Devi and Jagadamba Devi became recognized for their work.

Sita Devi’s and Ganga Devi’s exposure in Japan, Europe, the USSR and the US in the 1970s gave Mithila art a worldwide recognition. The success of the art form encouraged and inspired many artists to take up the art form and practice. Hundreds of women began painting on paper moving away from the conventional wall painting. Mithila painting afterwards spanned across several caste communities. Artists such as Lalitha Devi, Chano Devi and Shanti Devi from Dusadh community and Jamuna Devi from Chamar community, and male artists like Santosh Kumar Das, Batohi Jha, Krishnanand Jha and Gopal Saha came into picture.

Raymond Owens
Courtesy- Twitter

Many international filmmakers, journalists and influencers became the reason for its further evolution. Erika Moser, a German anthropologist and filmmaker, Yves Vequaud a French journalist and filmmaker and Raymond Owens an American anthropologist contributed significantly to the professionalization of Mithila art. Major credit to the commercial success of Mithila art is given to Owens, who started visiting the region in late 1970s buying art from local artists at a higher price, then selling it in US and returning half the profits to the women. It boosted the incomes and created an enterprise.

Today, MIthila art has grown and evolved in many ways over a period of time. Even though it has detached from the ritualistic meanings, it is still rooted in tradition. Many artists have flocked towards the art form and are expanding it not only on commercial platform but for education purpose too with messages in the form of art. From hiding under the rubbles during the earthquake of 1934, Mithila art has travelled a lot in time to gain the recognition that it actually deserves. Many thanks to the people and artists involved in this journey of opening up to the world in a way it was never done before.

Ram wedding Courtesy- Housenama




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